Activites - Drakensberg Hiking and walking Trails

TREKKING CAPITAL OF SOUTH AFRICA
NORTHERN & CENTRAL DRAKENSBERG
GRADES OF TREKKING

S Grade – Short(ish) Stroll S
Strolls suit anybody who can walk. They last one to two hours at very gentle pace. Footwear is whatever is comfortable, but we always recommend walking boots with good ankle support, moulded soles and waterproof, breathable uppers.

E Grade – Terrain Easy
These walks suit people who wish to enjoy the hills and mountains without much strenuous activity and at a slower pace. Expect three hours' walking with a maximum of approximately five hours. We recommend walking boots with good ankle support, moulded soles and waterproof, breathable uppers.

D Grade – Terrain Moderate
These are reasonably energetic walks on hills rather than mountains, but nothing too strenuous, although some paths may be rough. Your average daily walking will be less than five hours. We recommend walking boots with good ankle support, moulded soles and waterproof, breathable uppers.

D+ Grade – Terrain Moderate
Expect energetic hikes among hills and relatively easy mountain walking. Daily walking time will rarely exceed six hours. We recommend walking boots with good ankle support, moulded soles and waterproof, breathable uppers.

C Grade – Terrain Moderate to Hard
Hiking time will be about six hours per day. We advise that walking boots with good ankle support, moulded soles and waterproof, breathable uppers are mandatory for safety and insurance reasons.

C+ Grade – Terrain Hard
Trekking might be strenuous, offering excitement and challenges, with up to seven hours walking and occasional scrambling. We advise that walking boots with good ankle support, moulded soles and waterproof, breathable uppers are mandatory for safety and insurance reasons. Chain ladders may be encountered on some routes.

B Grade – Terrain Hard to Severe
Hard walking and scrambling, up to an average of eight hours per day. Please note from trekking descriptions the altitudes that are likely to be reached. We advise that previous experience of hard mountain walking is essential. Walking boots with good ankle support, moulded soles and waterproof, breathable uppers are mandatory for safety and insurance reasons. Chain ladders may be encountered, so a good head for heights is also necessary. Some routes pass through snow.

 

TREKS, HIKES AND WALKS STARTING AT THE CAVERN
THE WATERFALL

GRADE: S
TIME: 1 hour return.
DISTANCE: 1 km return.
TERRAIN: Easy path.

The diesel pump near the bottom gate is the starting point. Pass behind the large thatched house. Then go right on the path with steps; this leads directly to the waterfall. It's a nice swimming spot. Look for special stream-side flowers here. Hesperantha is a beautiful red star-shaped flower that grows only in the damp soil just above stream level. Phygelius, popular as a garden plant in Europe, has narrow, reddish-pink bells that hang in bunches. Moraea huttoni is a tall yellow iris. Return the same way.

THE CAVERN GROTTO

GRADE: S
TIME: 1 hour, return or round trip.
DISTANCE: 1.5 km.
TERRAIN: Undulating well-marked path. The circular return leg has a bit of a climb up reinforced steps.

The starting point is behind the children's dining room. The path leads through the pine trees. Beyond the pines head for a big cypress tree growing next to an underground stream sink-hole. Pass this tree on the right. The path goes over a rock, through a kissing gate, and five minutes further on reaches the Grotto.
This is a good place to see "house plants" that are kept indoors in pots in colder countries. This is their real home. Begonia, Impatiens and Streptocarpus, all popular in Europe, are native here. They make good pot plants because they flower well in partial shade, provided they get lots of water. Another famous pot plant living here is the maidenhair fern. Look also for liverworts that make a damp "wall-hanging". They are the oldest of all land plants. They represent the epic stage where plants first colonised land around 480 million years ago. They have since been pushed aside by more modern plants, and hold on only in deep damp shade or where water drips continuously.
You can return on the same route, but there are two alternatives. Cross the stream at the Grotto, taking the path uphill. It's a bit steep, but reinforced where it matters. At the top the first option is to go left, along First Ridge. Leopard footprints have been seen on this path, and there are lovely views. Go through the fence above the stables and follow the log path home. The second alternative is to turn right at the top, re-crossing the stream above the waterfall. The path goes through a small forest, and then up to Cowslip dam. From here the jeep track leads back to The Cavern.

THE FERN FOREST

GRADE: E
TIME: 2 hours round trip.
DISTANCE: 3 km.
TERRAIN: Undulating, with easy stream crossings.

The starting point is the car park behind the 70s block. There is an information board here with details of the trail, and many more information boards at points of particular interest along the way. Walk up the mowed slope, turning sharp right at the top, keeping the 70s on your right. Then down to the bottom of the mowed grass, picking up the path to the left. Cross the bridge into the Fern Forest, and then turn immediately left. The path leads all the way through the forest. Near the cairn in the middle of the forest look for the tallest tree in Fern Forest It is a Cape ash and is at least 200 years old. The species is common here, and many seedlings spring up in the hotel grounds. These are brought in by birds feeding on the large red berries of trees in the forest. Birds are not easily seen in the forest, but the cairn is a good place to sit and wait for them. The "best" species are those that are endemic to South Africa – found only here; chorister robin-chat, Cape white-eye, bush blackcap, forest canary, Barratt's warbler, southern boubou.

Further along the trail is the biggest cabbage tree in the Berg, and probably in all Africa. It is at least 150 years old. Branches form only after flowering, and this only happens in full sunshine. So when the tree was young, and making its first branches, this spot must have been the very edge of the forest, otherwise it would have been shaded. Forests expand and shrink naturally all the time. Close by, an elongated pit marks the spot where a large tree was felled over 100 years ago. No machinery was available so the tree had to be hand-sawn into boards on the spot. The pit was dug under the fallen trunk to allow a man to work at one end of a huge two-handled saw, while the other worker stood on top of the trunk. The sawing had to be precise, and was back-breakingly hard.

When emerging from the forest there is a choice of routes back.

1. To find the rest of the information boards take the first path left going downhill. The path crosses a stream, re-enters the forest and leads to some half-shaded pools. This is a good spot to sit quietly and wait for three birds that are typical of clean flowing water: the Black Duck, Mountain Wagtail and Half-collared Kingfisher. A little further on is Putterill's Weir. Cross the stream again here, and the path leads directly back to The Cavern.
2. The contour path continues out into protea woodland. The endemic Drakensberg prinia – a tiny warbler with a very long tail – lives here. Eventually the path crosses a stream, then circles back to The Cavern. >From this side of the valley there is an excellent view of the whole forest. It may look eternal, but has not always been here. The Afro-montane forest of East Africa spread southwards during a wet period during the last million years. Although today's climate is again drier, this type of forest holds on in damp sheltered spots all the way to the Cape.

BUSHBUCK RIDGE AND NATURAL POOL

GRADE: E
TIME: 2 hours round trip.
DISTANCE: 3 km.
TERRAIN: Undulating, with a short, steep but safe section.

From the car park at the 70s block follow the route as for the Fern Forest walk. At the stone cairn in the middle of the forest take the right turn uphill. This eventually emerges into protea woodland. Proteas are tough small trees that must live in full sunshine. They can withstand the grass fires that occur every second year because their thick bark insulates the sensitive growing cells beneath. They also need fire because their seeds germinate only when stimulated by smoke. Protea flowers are South Africa's emblem and are used by sugarbirds and sunbirds.
Bushbuck Ridge is a good place to meet baboons. Two troops of Chacma baboons, each 20-30 strong, live around The Cavern. One troop is based on Bushbuck Ridge, the other on Surprise Ridge. Sometimes they meet and have a great shouting match. Each troop is ruled by one or two large males. Mostly life is peaceful, foraging across the veld, plucking young grass, bulbs and berries, or raiding chestnuts and pecans in The Cavern grounds.

Continue through the proteas and grassland, and take a right fork down towards the Sungubala jeep track. Turn right again here. About 200 metres before the school take a left path through the bushes, down to a narrow flood plain. This is the highest spot in the Berg where acacias occur. These are Acacia sieberiana, typical of plains where silt has been deposited by long-ago floods. This is a likely spot to see two special reptiles. One is the Drakensberg dwarf chamaeleon. Adults are turquoise, juveniles sandy-coloured, but the key feature is their armoured appearance. This species is endemic to the Drakensberg. The other is the legless lizard. At first sight it resembles a thin brown-striped snake, but it cannot glide like a snake, and has the tiniest legs imaginable. It lashes from side to side and is easily cornered. The legs can then (just) be seen.
Be prepared for a swim at the Natural Pool at the end. The rocks are slippery when wet, be careful. Come back along the main road.

CANNIBAL CAVERN

GRADE: D
TIME: 4-5 hours.
DISTANCE: 6 km return, or 7 km round trip.
TERRAIN: Undulating with a few steep sections.

Top Gate is the starting point. Take the path right, leading past the football field. Keep left, going uphill, where the path forks. The first top dam will be on the left in front of you. The TV aerial is clearly visible on the shoulder of the next level. To pick up the path to it cross the fence just behind second top dam. From the aerial the contour path begins to rise. Look out for Ground Woodpeckers sunning on the rocks.
Many of the large boulders are also home to isolated large trees, and even miniature forests. A bare rock may seem an austere home, but has several advantages. First it is a refuge from fire, and nearly all "rock" trees are otherwise found only in the forest where fire rarely penetrates. Second, a rock acts as a heat store, soaking up sunshine by day, and slowly releasing warmth at night, keeping frost at bay. Third, all the rain that falls on it is channelled to one or a few spots – exactly where the trees are rooted. And there is plenty of soil for most of these rocks are not outcrops, but boulders that have rolled down from higher up, and are sitting on a full soil profile. How did the trees get there? Any passing bird perches on the highest available point. In its droppings will be seeds from fruits eaten at a previous pit-stop. The seed will automatically be washed into the best germination spot by the next rain. Once it has matured and begins fruiting it becomes an added attraction for yet more birds to visit.

After walking alongside a gate, go through a gate on the right. The path goes through some small forest patches, look out for the rare and endemic berg bamboo. Right beside the path, and quite close to the cave, is a nice specimen (and the only one in the vicinity) of Protea subvestita.
Cannibal Cavern was home to Bushmen in earlier times, and two very faded paintings still exist. Since then it housed real cannibals early in the nineteenth century. During King Shaka's wars of expansion, refugees from losing tribes fled south and west, often dispossessing even weaker tribes on the way. Cannibal Cavern became the last refuge, where a few survivors could not be persecuted further. They dared not reveal their hiding place, so there were hard times with little food. When starvation set in the only choice was to eat their own dead. This led to their tribal name of Amazizi – amazimo is the Zulu word for cannibal. When the troubles finally ended, they moved down to the flat lands below to resume normal life. Many people working at The Cavern today are seventh generation descendants of the original cannibals.
Since cannibal times the cave has been used to shelter up to 500 cattle, and a stone shepherd's dwelling has been built near the cave entrance. A permanent trickle of water at the back of the cave made it a tenable home, and provides a welcome drink for walkers today.
Return to the hotel by the same route, or take the longer circular route going via Surprise Ridge.

SUGAR LOAF

GRADE: D+
TIME: 4 hours.
DISTANCE: 7 km.
TERRAIN: Undulating path with a few steep slopes and fairly easy scrambles.

Top Gate is the starting point. Take the path right, leading past the football field. In spring, particularly after a burn, clumps of Barleria monticola, a lovely mauve flower, erupt out of the blackness. Keep left, going uphill, where the path forks. Do not turn left to the dams and the aerial, but keep straight on towards the cliff face, with the fence on your left. This path leads to Sugar Loaf Gap. Once on top of the plateau take note of any marker that identifies the route back; many a walker has had difficulty in finding the exact spot on the return. Now go left, path not well marked, to the Sugar Loaf summit. Water may be difficult to locate, so make sure to carry some. Return the same way.

Vultures
Vultures often soar over Sugar Loaf. Two species occur here. The Cape vulture is endemic – found only in southern Africa, with its main stronghold in the Berg. It is gregarious, so although foraging birds are widely spread, to survey the most ground, each can see the next, and all will arrive at a carcase within a few minutes.

The bearded vulture (lammergeyer) is solitary, preferring old kills, even dry bones, that other scavengers cannot tackle. If the bone is too big to swallow, the lammergeyer carries it high in the air and drops it on a big rock. Its rusty colour is a form of make-up, derived from iron-rich rocks, and must be renewed after every moult to impress the opposite sex.

LITTLE HUT AND MILLS GAP

GRADE: C+
TIME: 4 hours.
DISTANCE: 8 km.
TERRAIN: Undulating path with steep slopes and scrambles.

Take the main Sugar Loaf Gap. After the second plateau the path flattens. At the base of the final steep slope, just before the rock face, look for a route across to the left. This leads towards a very large rounded rock that forms a corner point of the main escarpment. Bundu-bash to this rock where, at about eye level, but quite well concealed, is a Bushman painting – The Little Buck. Proceed left, keeping to the level of the base of the main escarpment. Cross a small wooded area; water is available here.
Beyond this is the Little Hut, so called because, if viewed from below, the shape of a thatched roof on the walls of a hut is apparent. In fact the "hut" is formed by a large portion of the rock face calving away from the escarpment, creating a concealed cave behind. A large mountain cypress grows here. This is quite a rare Berg tree, and only grows where fire cannot reach it. At the open south end of the Little Hut a route leads up through Mills Gap – a fault in the rock face. This emerges directly below Sugar Loaf. Walkers planning to return this way must take careful note of the position of the gap; it is not easily seen from above.

METSI MATSI RIVER

GRADE: C+
TIME: 8 hours.
DISTANCE: 13 km.
TERRAIN: Undulating path with steep slopes and some scrambles. Hotel guide required.

This walk is one of the least known, yet most scenic of all walks from The Cavern. The easiest route for the newcomer is to take the Sugar Loaf Gap. Turn right above the escarpment and proceed to Venus' Bath. This holds water only in summer. Then just below the steep slope of Hlolela, bear left down into the valley along an easily found path running beside a stream. This eventually runs into the Metsi Matsi River.

The hike now turns up the Metsi Matsi River, with no particular path. The "black" bottom of the river is the origin of its name. The river must be crossed several times before reaching its source. Almost at the source is a waterfall. Climb up the right hand bank to enter a small, almost hidden valley. Proceed along game tracks while being almost entirely surrounded by walls of hills. Finally cross the stream and bear left to climb out of the valley to the top of Cold Ridge.

Near the corner of Cold Hill is a volcanic dyke – a strip of basaltic lava that has forced upwards through a crack in the sandstone. This indicates an easy route through and down Cold Ridge, where a game track follows a contour across the slope above Cannibal Cave. Turn left at this track and watch for the route down to Cavern Gap – just to the left of Cannibal Cave from the top. It is marked with a stone cairn. Descend through this rough gap down to Cannibal Cave, and thence home.

THE DIAMOND

GRADE: C+
TIME: 8 hours.
DISTANCE: 13 km.
TERRAIN: Undulating path with steep slopes and some scrambles.

Take the Sugar Loaf Gap. Bear left towards Sugar Loaf, but before the final ascent cross the fence back into Cavern property. Now pick up a game track that contours across the entire frontage below Cold Ridge, and on the east slopes. Follow this track, climbing above the wooded area behind Tiny's Peak as early as possible (roughly below Sugar Loaf). This path leads right onto The Diamond. >From here carefully ease past the small knoll on the left side, always bearing south: not towards Surprise Ridge. Cross a small marsh and look for the next valley that goes down from the high plateau slightly to the left. A watershed goes down the valley, and a waterfall will be found by walking down to just above the rock face. This might be the last watering spot.
Climb out of the valley towards the south-west, reaching a saddle upon which there is a marsh. Go past the marsh, and you should now be looking across to Cold Hill, Castle Rocks and Plowman's Kop. A large outcrop of white sloping rocks will be visible. Stand on these and try shouting across to Castle Rocks and Cold Hill; a magnificent series of echoes will answer. This is Echo Corner.
From this point go back to the central part of The Diamond, but still moving south. Now one encounters enormous, white, flat rocks with orange "lines" apparently set or drawn into them. These are parallel and all of 70 m long. Go past these lines, keeping south-west, and look for a cairn or beacon on the lower level. There was also a beacon built on the upper level that was prone to storm damage. Both these beacons indicate the route to take for the gap in the rock face. This is a simple scramble down to the contour path below on the National Park side. Turn left here, following the contour around to Surprise Ridge and the hotel.

THE SILENT WOMAN VIA JACKAL HILL

GRADE: D
TIME: 4 hours.
DISTANCE: 8 km.
TERRAIN: Undulating path with moderate slopes and gradients. The descent to the Silent Woman is steep but not difficult.

Follow the path from behind Room 203 (at the diesel pump) and bear left. Go up three metres and into the Fern Forest. Follow this path through the bush tunnel until you reach a wooden bridge over the river. Cross the bridge and turn immediately left ascending into the forest. On reaching a large cairn turn right.
The path ascends steeply coming out into the open on Bushbuck Ridge. To your right you will have views of The Cavern and the Resort Spa. After passing though the kissing gate continue straight ignoring the turn to the right signposted "Natural Pool". The path now descends through another gate and down onto the gravel track. Turn left onto the gravel track, crossing the bridge. Immediately after the bridge the path veers left up the side of the hill bringing you back onto the road before the gate.
Go through the gate and continue on this gravel track until you reach Sungubala Camp. At the entrance to the camp the path veers to the left to bypass the camp. Stay on the path keeping the camp on your right side. You will see green and black way-marks for the route. The path descends gently to a river crossing in a small indigenous forest patch. A further 300 m beyond the forest the path does a 90° right turn and then continues running parallel to the river. After a short climb you will see a small but prominent pointed lone peak. This is known locally as the Inkaba, or Bishop's Mitre.
The path descends again into more indigenous forest and to another river crossing. In this forest there are two more river crossings before the path ascends and exits the forest. You will see Sungubala Camp in the distance. The path now climbs steadily up to another patch of indigenous forest on the hillside. Once you exit this forest you will come to a T-junction. Here turn right, descending the hill, with the path joining an old jeep track. Turn right and continue on the jeep track, coming to a small river crossing. 200 m beyond this is a path on the left marked with the green and black way mark. Follow this path down to the river. Cross over and head right into the trees. Here you will find a campfire. Look at the rock face opposite to see a red square and a white arrow. This is where the rock carving of the Silent Woman is to be found.
The Silent Woman was carved by Willie Chalmers, who arrived in the area in the 1950s. He was a pacifist who did not wish to fight in the Second World War. He had walked from the Cape to Natal where he intended to study Bushman art. He started carving instead, often at frenetic speed, sometimes for long periods without rest. He kept no records, so not all his sculptures are known. Every so often a new one is found. Willie Chalmers also painted, and some of his work hangs in the Conference Room.
To return, follow the path back to the jeep track, which will lead you back to the gate before Sungubala Camp. Go through this gate and continue on the jeep track until reaching the tarred road. Turn right, back to The Cavern.

CAMEL'S HUMP

GRADE: D+
TIME: 4½ hours.
DISTANCE: 7 km round trip.
TERRAIN: Undulating path with a few steepish sections. The short-cut route has some scrambles.

The aptly named Camel's Hump is the corner-post of The Cavern property. Top Gate is the starting point for the walk. Proceed as for Surprise Ridge. At the top of the ridge turn left, and follow the contour all the way to Camel's Hump. Mountain reedbuck are often seen around here. So too is the jackal buzzard, soaring on the updraughts. It has an anusual breeding system, where one female sometimes has two mates simultaneously, both of which support the family nest. Work that one out.
At the hump summit nearly all the Berg features can be seen – Amphitheatre, Sentinel, Eastern Buttress, Sleeping Beauty, Frog, Tortoise, Mpongwane, Rockeries, Saddle, Bell, Cathedral and Cathkin. Nearer to home are The Cavern's own attractions – Cold Hill, Sugar Loaf, Hlolela, Sungubala, and Bababona Ridges. For serious Berg enthusiasts a very early morning start is recommended in order to see the amazing pink first light on the Amphitheatre wall.
Return home the same way, or do what everyone else does and scramble down the short cut, by following the fence line downhill to the hotel.

HLOLELA

GRADE: C
TIME: 4½ hours return, longer by various circular routes.
DISTANCE: 7 km return.
TERRAIN: Undulating to steep, with some fairly easy scrambles.

The starting point is the car park behind the 70s block. Follow the route through the Fern Forest. Once into the open turn right up the hill as though going to Echo Cave. At the base of the cliffs do not turn into the forest, but ease around to the right. There is no real path, but game tracks make life easier. Pass through a small wooded area, and immediately look out on the left for Scilla Gully. This is named after an abundant, beautiful, large, blue flower, Scilla natalensis, that grows from a bulb. The gully leads through the rock face to the top of the first cliffs. Once above this gap the route can easily be seen slightly to the right. Up the Knife Edge of the ridge a small rock face looks a difficult obstacle, but is easily surmounted. The summit is the highest point of The Cavern property, at 2127 m, where one stands on Jurassic lava flows. The sentinel rock-thrush might be there too.

The shortest route home is to return the same way, but there are several alternatives. One is to proceed along the top towards Witsieshoek, and turn left and downwards near Venus' Bath. Another is to follow the Little Berg towards Sungubala, to descend the Sungubala Pass. Yet another route goes via Troglodytes. The longest way home, allow all day for this, is to drop down to Metsi Matsi dam, and then follow the river back up the Little Berg towards Sugar Loaf. Then descend through Sugar Loaf Gap.

SURPRISE RIDGE

GRADE: D
TIME: 3½ hours.
DISTANCE: 7 km.
TERRAIN: Undulating path with moderate slopes and gradients.

The ridge holds two surprises. The first is that on approaching the ridge one finds that the real ridge is further on. The second is the magnificent view of the main Berg, from Cathkin to Cathedral and the Amphitheatre that suddenly appears. Top Gate is the starting point. Proceed to the TV aerial as for the start of the Cannibal Cave walk. Then follow the "contour" path, without taking the right turn to Cannibal Cave. At the confluence of the streams take the path easing left. Subsequently it takes several zig-zags on the ascent.

An alternative route is to go left after Top Gate. Almost immediately, under the pines, look for a white ground orchid, Disperis fanniniae, that flowers in summer. The path then goes past Cowslip Falls – named not after a pretty flower, but after a cow that slipped to its doom on a dark and stormy night. Beyond Cowslip Dam the path forks. Go left, across the little bridge. In autumn the area to the right is a mass of red Leonotis flowers, a magnet for sunbirds. There are always a few white flowers among the red; it's the same species, but lacking the red pigment, an example of albinism. A little further, also on the right, is a classic specimen of the red rock fig hugging a big boulder. New spring growth flushes brilliant red. The tree never grows any "taller" because every winter frost trims it back. The path will join up with the other route at the confluence of the streams.

JIM'S CAVE

GRADE: E
TIME: 2½ hours.
DISTANCE: 4½ km
TERRAIN: Undulating path with moderate slopes.

Take the path to Surprise Ridge past the aerial. At the confluence of the streams look for a path proceeding up the stream. This path leads right into the cave. It is named after Jim Heins who believed that he had discovered it, writing JIM on a prominent rock. Return the same way.

ALAN'S TABLE

GRADE: D+
TIME: 4 hours.
DISTANCE: 6 km.
TERRAIN: Undulating path with some moderately steep slopes.

Take the path to the top of Surprise Ridge. Then turn towards Cannibal Cave and The Diamond. Continue along this path, edging up towards the escarpment. Keep to the base of the rock face, still on The Cavern side of The Diamond. Alan's Table is situated at the first stream that emerges from The Diamond along the rock face. Return the same way.

LONE ROCK

GRADE: E
TIME: 2½ hours.
DISTANCE: 4 km.
TERRAIN: Undulating path with moderate slopes. Only done with a hotel guide as it is easy to miss the paintings.

The Bushman paintings are the most accessible in the Drakensberg, and are the main focus of this walk. Take the back route out of The Cavern, past the football field and dams, continuing up the Sugar Loaf path. Avoid the turn-off to the aerial. Go straight towards the escarpment past the first small plateau. Watch on the left for a huge flat "white" rock. Align this rock with another big "white" rock about 400 m away to the left and slightly higher. You will then see an "orange" rock, slightly above the second white rock. This orange rock is just above the level of the large second plateau. Now follow the path until reaching a gate on the left. Go through the gate and this path takes you to the paintings on the north side of the orange rock. These paintings are deteriorating with age; please do not touch them, nor splash them with water.

Bushman history and culture

Seven hundred years ago, and for many thousand years before that, the Bushmen were the only humans in South Africa. They lived by hunting and gathering. They had no domestic animals, nor cultivated crops, and very few possessions at all. They must have been semi-nomadic – following movements of large animals if food became scarce. But in the Drakensberg it may be that some Bushmen lived permanently because of the good shelters here. Much of what we know about them comes from their paintings. These depict scenes of human activity, animal portraits, and other visions that must have been part of their religion. All of the Drakensberg paintings are on Cave Sandstone, a rock custom‑built for the purpose. The sandstone is porous so that paint applied will sink in and "grip".
Nguni (Black) people spread down to South Africa about 700 years ago, bringing cattle, crops and the idea of ownership – including land. The Bushmen did not understand this, so fighting began. Now no Bushmen are left here. The last recorded sighting of a Berg Bushman was in 1871. Some survive in the Kalahari, but these are relatives who have never painted.
The copy of the Lone Rock painting near The Cavern games room is worth examining before or after the walk – weather might decide which. This copy has more detail than the original painting – like all Bushman paintings the original is gradually fading away.

Bushman art has a distinctive style. It is not exactly true to life but uses "artistic licence", in the way that a modern newspaper cartoonist does, exaggerating special characters to add emphasis. So the people have extra-enlarged buttocks (Bushmen really do have relatively bigger buttocks than other people); the angle of the legs of the hunters tells that they were super-speed runners; and eland pictures all show the typical huge neck and shoulders, and to emphasise the point the legs are made small and thin.
Even so, we can see that three different artists are represented in this painting. This is not a single painting but was added to at intervals, perhaps spanning several years. There seems to be no respect for a previous artist's work: newer parts of the painting overlap older. "Over-painting" is typical of Bushman paintings elsewhere. One explanation is that there were only a few really good rock walls and that the artists competed with each other for space.
Three different antelopes are illustrated at Lone Rock. The eland is easy, look at the body shape. Note that we cannot use body size alone to identify animals because different artists used different scales. The other two antelopes are thin in build. The grey rhebuck is shown with its long ears and snout exaggerated just that little bit, surely to distinguish it from a mountain reedbuck.
The depiction of fighting other Bushmen here is typical of many other paintings too. This seems strange in a people generally supposed to be at peace with everything. So we can deduce that life was not all peace and harmony, man has always fought over anything when it is in short supply, here perhaps the best rock shelter.
The little bows seem too small to do much damage. If painted true to life size this means that they would only be effective with the use of poisoned arrows. As it happens we do think that Bushmen bows were small because some have been saved from those days. Nobody else used poisoned arrows, and the Bushmen's enemies thought this was an "unfair" way of fighting.
Which hand did the bushman use to paint with? Left-handedness in people today is not that common – about one in seven, but in Bushmen at least half the work (both here and everywhere else) is by left-handed artists. The way to detect this is to see which way they painted the animal's face. A right-handed person draws an animal starting with its nose facing left, carrying on towards the tail; it's the same way we write. Left-handed people usually start a drawing on the right. Of significance is that a high proportion of modern artistic people are left-handed. Were most Bushmen naturally artistic?

The materials used for the paint were charcoal, ochraceous (yellow-brown) clay soil, iron-rich rocks, bird droppings and plant juices. Green and blue could not be produced from any mixture of these, so were never used. Egg-white of wild birds was used to bind all the materials together.

THONSELA CAVE

GRADE: C
TIME: 4 hours return.
DISTANCE: 5 km.
TERRAIN: Undulating path, with a few steep parts and some easy scrambling.

Top Gate is the starting point. Follow the path to Sugar Loaf up past the plateau. Begin the final steep gradient up the rock face itself. On the right, near the top of this steep section, watch for a path leading around, just below the escarpment. Follow this. The path crosses a fence at a small overhang where there are some indistinct Bushman paintings. The path hugs the base of the rock face all the way to Thonsela Cave, about 500 m from the Sugar Loaf path. There is permanent water from a seepage in the far back right of the cave.

ECHO CAVE

GRADE: C+
TIME: 4 hours return.
DISTANCE: 5 km.
TERRAIN: Difficult – steep, slippery and scrambly in places.

The starting point is to follow the directions through the Fern Forest. Upon emerging from the end of the forest take the right hand fork leading up the hill. This path is well defined, and as it ascends it turns right as it approaches a fence. This was installed to prevent rustling. Crawl under it, sticking to the path, which now ascends steeply. Ignore right-hand turns as you approach the sandstone wall. After a few zig-zags the top of the plateau is reached. A well-earned rest will give sufficient time to enjoy the magnificent views of the Amphitheatre and surrounding mountains. Just before the cliff the path veers to the left, continues in through the trees, and after a short walk reaches the Echo Cave. Be careful crossing the mouth of the cave; the sandstone is very slippery when wet.
The cave wall bears impressive black stripes. These are caused by cyanobacteria growing in seepage water. Cyanobacteria were once, and for a billion years and more, the most important creatures on Earth. Long before multi-cellular plants and animals existed they "invented" photosynthesis, which has oxygen as its waste product, ultimately producing our modern friendly atmosphere. Now cyanobacteria hang on as relics in odd ecological corners.
Return on the same route. An alternative is to go back to the point where you entered the cave, but take the right hand path descending. There are way-marks on the trees. This path is very steep in places, but the trees provide good hand-holds. A strong walking stick is helpful too. After the first stream look out on your left for two very large yellow-wood trees; these are hundreds of years old.

Yellow-woods have great historical significance. Because they grow straight, and have wood that is easily worked, they were heavily exploited until the twentieth century for furniture and building timber. Because Echo Cave forest is so remote and steep it was never exploited, which is why it has so many yellow-woods. On the greater time-scale yellow-woods contribute to our knowledge of Earth history. Almost identical species are found on all the southern continents, and even as fossils under Antarctic ice. This points to a common ancestry when all these regions were physically joined. This super-continent was Gondwana, and although continental drift has pulled its fragments apart, each still carries some of the original inhabitants.
Close to the path you will see a small, delicate bamboo; it is rare and endemic – found only – in the Berg. Its unique feature is that the leaf veins form a perfect cross-hatch pattern, unlike the parallel veins of other bamboos. Look through a magnifying glass or reversed binoculars. Flowering is rare, only every 40 years or so. Before leaving the forest the path crosses a second stream. Here there are two triangular steel steps anchored into the rock. Use these as the rock is very slippery. Once the path leaves the forest you will come to a kissing gate. Beyond the gate take the left fork downhill. This leads to a steep stepped descent. From here the way to the hotel is obvious.

SUNGUBALA PASS

GRADE: C+
TIME: 8 hours
DISTANCE: 14 km.
TERRAIN: Very steep at times, with some "bundu bashing". Go with a hotel guide because the paths are not well marked on the escarpment.

The Cavern school is the starting point. Take the jeep track north for about 2.5 km. Turn left at the gate, following the path up past a kraal. From here the path bears right near the top of the outcrop. A series of virtually parallel paths continue north; all cross and link for the next kilometre as one travels around and up the Ace of Clubs. Cross a couple of streams, still on the grassy slope below the main rock face. The path now enters Sungubala Pass into the valley before dropping into the river bed. This might be the last watering point on the hike. The path continues up the valley. At the top of the pass is a wide gate, the boundary with Qwaqwa. Return the same way, or there are several alternatives.
Turn left within the gate, following a track leading around the slopes of Hlolela, above the rock face. Stay above the rock face and the track arrives at Scilla Gully. Downhill from here leads directly to The Cavern. Alternatively turn left beyond the gate into Qwaqwa. The path meanders around the westerly side of Hlolela, emerging at Venus' Bath. From here go either to Sugar Loaf Gap, or take the Metsi Matsi detour.

BABABONA

GRADE: C+
TIME: 9 hours.
DISTANCE: 15 km.
TERRAIN: Very steep at times. Go with a hotel guide because the paths are not well marked.

Take the Sungubala Pass. Turn right at the gate at the top of the pass, and scramble up the steep slopes of the Sungubala Ridge. At the top, travel along the edge of the rock face, roughly following the entire Sungubala outcrop, easing around to the left towards Bababona. Travel down the hill to the top of Stony Pass – a gate indicates the pass itself. Bypass Stony by proceeding up the hill on the other side where a vague path eases to the left. It proceeds over and around the hill, taking one within sight of Bababona. The path eases to the right, following the fence up to the two peaks. Water can be found in the valley below the top. Return the same way.

TROGLODYTES

GRADE: C+
TIME: 8 hours.
DISTANCE: 14 km.
TERRAIN: Very steep at times. Go with a hotel guide because the paths are not well marked on the escarpment.

There are several ways to reach this rarely visited spot. The "easiest" is to take the Sungubala Pass route. Go through the gate at the top of the pass and take the left path. After about 400 m a spur will be seen leading down a gentle slope to the right (not into the valley). Take a path (there are several) for 1 km down towards the dam, but keeping on the upper slopes, and watching the drainage lines. The path reaches a small amphitheatre with two waterfalls, about 500 m apart, trickling over the edge into almost circular glades below. The surrounding cliff faces are shaped like gnomes' faces; hence the name "Troglodytes", meaning "cave-dwellers". This was an African ceremonial centre, so proceed with care and respect. In particular do not damage the stone huts there. Return the same way.
A second route is via Rodney's Pass. To find it, start at Top Gate, taking the path towards Sugar Loaf. Before reaching the first dam look for a path to the right leading across the "flats" towards the left of Echo Cave. This path leads gently down to the old quarry (reddish rock face at the first plateau). Take the rather steep pass up through these rocks. This leads onto the top of the first plateau above the rock face. Cross the fence there via a gate to the right. Follow the twisting path leading up and right, always keeping in the general direction of the Battleship. At the second plateau pick up the path that leads up and crosses to the right, always towards Battleship. This path leads into a small gully, at which point a faint track can be found leading left up to the main escarpment. This leads through a wooded area, clambering over and under rocks and bushes, to emerge above the rock face. Climb out of the long slope to the top of the plateau, and proceed round and behind Hlolela, keeping to the contour path. Eventually the top of Sungubala Pass will be seen. Locate the path leading from there to the spur and proceed as before.
A third route is via the top of Scilla Gully. Reach this spot on the standard route to Hlolela. At this point keep right along the contour path that winds around and behind Hlolela towards the Sungubala valley. Once Sungubala Pass is located, proceed as before.

THE NATIONAL PARK GROTTO, SERPENTINE AND SHELL

GRADE: C+
TIME: 8 hours.
15 km return.
TERRAIN: Very steep at times, and only done with a hotel guide because the paths are not well marked on the escarpment.

Hike from the Top Gate up through Sugar Loaf Gap. Part way up the Sugar Loaf itself, take a right-hand track that goes behind the peak. Pass Cold Hill and proceed down the valley near Broome Hill. To the left a path will be found leading down the lower slopes of Broome Hill. It then leads around a contour of Broome Hill, and drops onto a spur leading south. A sketchy path winds to the end of this spur. Here a fault in the rocks has created the Hole in the Wall – a gap down through the rock face to the valley below. This gap is on the right and almost concealed. It is about three metres wide, and an easy scramble. For obvious reasons it is nick-named the Dassie's Toilet. The path below the rocks leads to the contour path but is a little overgrown. Turn right on the contour path, then right again into The Grotto. Time is needed here to have lunch, and explore all the waterways, falls, tunnels, The Serpentine and The Shell. To return home turn left out of The Grotto onto the contour path. Go past Castle Rocks, around The Diamond, and onto Surprise Ridge.

Rock hyrax

Students of the Bible will have come across a creature called a coney. Biological details are few, but we know it lived in the rocky hills. Around here we call it a dassie, or hyrax. It looks a bit like a large, elastic rat, but it's not related to rodents. Among many differences it lacks a visible tail, has tusk-like incisor teeth used for fighting and grooming, and rubber "hooves" instead of claws. Their short legs and sticky glands on the feet make dassies excellent climbers and rock jumpers. Other unique features are scent glands along the back, with erectile hairs there to advertise them.

Dassies are gregarious, roosting together in caves or boulder jumbles. They even have a communal latrine, which might be centuries old. The early morning sun-bath is essential, for dassies are not completely warm-blooded, cooling down overnight to conserve energy. They feed on plants, always with one elder on sentry duty. Black eagles are the main threat. An alarm call sends the whole colony under cover. A group usually has a dominant male, and up to 17 wives and their offspring. Young males are tolerated if they keep out of trouble. Females start breeding at one year, litter size 2-3. Dassies are slow breeders, gestation period seven months, by far the longest for such a small animal.
Once common in the Drakensberg, an epidemic killed most of the population around 1980. Since then there has been a slow recovery, and dassies can now again be seen in RNNP. Soon we can hope to see their return to The Cavern grounds.
Long ago the hyrax tribe was important. Thirty million years ago there were many species, some of them large. Hyraxes evolved in Africa, along with their cousins the elephant, elephant shrew, golden mole, aardvark and dugong. These afrotheres (literally "African beasts") are not at all related to the rest of Africa's mammals: cats and antelopes and the rest are all invaders from Asia, arriving after the two continents joined. So our little dassie is part of Africa's long history, and one of the few survivors of ancient times.

GOODOO FALLS

GRADE: C+
TIME: 8 hours.
DISTANCE: 18 km return.
TERRAIN: Very steep at times and only done with a hotel guide as the paths are not well marked on the escarpment.

Hike from the Top Gate up through Sugar Loaf Gap. Part way up the Sugar Loaf itself, take a right-hand track that goes behind the peak. This leads to Cold Hill, ascending about 500 m. Follow the line of the fence and around Broome Hill. Cross the fence, and proceed down the slope of Plowman's Kop for about 2 km, where the stream is seen on the right, nestling in the valley. Note: it is easy to make a mistake just after crossing the fence by following a strong contour path instead. Towards the end of Plowman's Kop slopes, ease right, dropping gently into the valley, picking up the path to the lip of Goodoo Falls. Swim in the pools and have lunch at the top of the falls.
Hike back to The Cavern the same way, or descend to Royal Natal National Park for a drive back to The Cavern. There is one longer feasible alternative. Climb out of the valley on the left side (if looking out over the falls). A strong path leads to the Mudslide (aptly named in summer). If time permits a small diversion can be taken by turning off the Mudslide path near the top, and climbing, on the right of the path, onto the very end of Plowman's Kop. Brilliant views of the Amphitheatre and Dooley await. Look at the "cracks" in the rocks on the left hand side of the kop at the very end. These must be at least 300 m deep. Back down the Mudslide, using chain ladders as necessary. Turn left along the strong contour path at the bottom. Follow this past the Grotto, around Castle Rocks, around The Diamond and over Surprise Ridge, back to The Cavern.
In winter take torch, in case darkness falls before arrival home.

THE CAVERN BIG 5 HIKE

GRADE: B
TIME: 8 hours.
DISTANCE: 18 km.
TERRAIN: Very steep at times and only done with a hotel guide. Need a head for heights as there are short climbs over boulders and the descent to Cannibal Cave is very steep.

This hike takes you up Hlolela (500 m and an approximately two-hour climb to 2127 m) via Scilla Gully, and then on to the Bridge of the Battleship. From Battleship hike down towards Venus' Bath for tea, and then on to the top of Sugar Loaf. Then hike to the top of Cold Hill. Descend from Cold Hill via the Devil's Staircase and Cavern Gap to Cannibal Cavern for lunch. After lunch, hike along Surprise Ridge to Camel's Hump and then home. There are escape routes back home at several points along the route. This hike, because of the range of habitats it traverses, and the ever-changing view, offers the best chance to see eland.

Eland

About 2000 eland roam the Drakensberg and its foothills. Roam is the correct word, which is why we don't see them at The Cavern every day. Summer tends to be spent grazing in the higher berg while the grass is at its most edible. Individuals congregate in breeding herds, maybe 50-strong. In winter the herds break up as the eland move to the lower berg. Here they browse on small trees, especially Buddleja salviifolia. They are messy feeders, leaving a trail of wreckage behind them.
The eland is the Berg animal. No better proof is needed than the Bushman paintings, more than half of which portray eland. It is the biggest animal here, and indeed the biggest antelope anywhere. Imposing and elegant, its great dewlap conveys an air of opulence too. Despite this, the eland is an athlete, easily jumping over a two-metre fence, or right across a district road from a standing start. When walking, eland make loud clicks, sometimes likened to castanets. The sound comes from their front-leg "ankles", actually foot bones just above the hooves. The significance is unknown. Both sexes bear tightly spiralled horns, those of the males being heavier.
The wide open spaces of the Berg suggest that many more eland could live here, yet they never increase. In former times there were many more. The difference was that, before the extensive human settlements in the midlands, many of the large animals migrated seasonally. The Drakensberg grasslands were nutritious enough in summer to support large herds, making the uphill trek worthwhile. Even elephants and lions came. Then, as winter approached, the grasses lost palatability as they transferred their minerals to their roots. This was the signal for most of the herds to return to the lowlands. Now this migration route no longer exists, and the eland population is restricted by what the winter can support.

AMPHITHEATRE ASCENT - SUMMIT HEIGHT 3030 M

GRADE: B
TIME: 6 hours hiking plus 4 hours driving.
DISTANCE: 6-8 km plus 240 km drive.
Steep at times but on a reasonable path. Narrow ledges to cross with a two chain ladders to climb to reach the summit. Need a head for heights.

To spend the day on the summit of the Amphitheatre, in the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg, must surely be one of the highlights of visiting South Africa. The Cavern provides a trained guide with packed lunches to sustain this spectacular day outing. Even if one is not so fit, the first kilometre of the walk provides the most breathtaking views in South Africa – fantastic reward for very little effort.

The Amphitheatre is located at the northern end of the Drakensberg escarpment. Driving from The Cavern follow the R74 towards Harrismith up the Oliviershoek Pass to the Free State. Sterkfontein Dam, with several view-sites and a Cape vulture restaurant, is on the left of the road, with the "Platberg" mountain in the distance behind Harrismith. About 30 km from the Oliviershoek Pass the R74 meets the R712. Turn left towards the town of Phuthadijhaba. The Amphitheatre, Sentinel and Witsieshoek Resort are clearly marked. Passing through the town one is led onto a dirt road and into the National Park. The only way forward is up, past all signs of habitation, towards the Sentinel car park. After 13 km the dirt road ends in a secured car park with 24-hour guard presence.
The Amphitheatre has a dramatic history. Once it lay at the centre of the super-continent Gondwana, when all the southern continents were joined together. Then, 140 million years ago, the greatest lava flow of all time erupted here, solidifying into basalt. This same vulcanism fractured Gondwana, and continental drift carried Antarctica and Australia away, leaving Africa with a brand new coastline only 100 km from the Amphitheatre. Since then erosion has cut back to the Amphitheatre wall, where the last of the Gondwana landscape remains. The "dragon's teeth" appearance of the Berg from below is due to the differing speeds with which rivers cut back into the Amphitheatre face. The actual top is relatively flat.
For a person of average fitness this must be one of the easiest ways to access the top of the Drakensberg – other than by helicopter. It takes just three hours to reach the summit along reasonably maintained paths – and there is even an alternative route if one is afraid of heights and does not intend to tackle the chain ladders.
The views opened up when walking up the path and from the summit must be some of the greatest in the world. The breathtaking grandeur of the scenery, with the Tugela River plummeting 850 m to the gorge below, creates an unforgettable experience. To the north stand the Beacon Buttress and Sentinel peaks.

From the car park a broad path leads up the looming northern flank of the Sentinel (3165 m). On the left of the path observe the aptly named Witches Peaks. This is a good spot to appreciate the unique wildlife that occurs at this altitude. Overhead soar the Cape vulture - endemic to South Africa - and the bearded vulture - famous for dropping bones from a height to break them on rocks below. Two of the beautiful smaller birds, the sentinel rock-thrush and orange-breasted rockjumper, are unique to high altitude, and easily seen on boulder piles. Lurking near rock crevices look for the Drakensberg crag lizard, a little dragon with an orange belly. Rock hyraxes sun themselves on top of rocks, always with one on sentry duty looking after the others. Striped field-mice scuttle busily in the thicker grass around the rocks. The two antelopes most likely to be seen are also typical of high altitude, the mountain reedbuck and grey rhebuck, both forming small family groups. For flower-lovers the best season is December-February, and, yet again, most of the species are unique to the high Drakensberg.

As the path leads to the base of the Sentinel, peer over the edge to the left and see the Tugela Gorge in the Royal Natal National Park far below. Due east lies the Devil's Tooth, a completely isolated pinnacle of rock between the Eastern Buttress (3047 m) and the Inner Tower (3044 m). The distance as the vulture flies between the Inner Tower and Beacon Buttress is 4 km. Enjoy this spectacular view before the path follows a contour to the right around the back of the Sentinel and Beacon Buttress (3121 m) to the famous chain ladders. These mildly intimidating structures, two ladders of 40 metres and 20 metres respectively, allows easy access to the Amphitheatre plateau above. Those with faint hearts can ascend and descend via a steep gully between the Sentinel and Beacon Buttress.
From the top of the chain ladders the edge of the escarpment lies 2 km to the east. The youthful Tugela River slips over the escarpment to plummet, in five massive leaps, over 850 metres to the valley gorge below – this is the second-highest waterfall in the world. The best position from which to appreciate the magnificent views is some way to the south of the waterfall itself at the Window Crevice. From the top of the chain ladders follow the path along the stream for 500 m, then turn to the southeast and follow the rising slope to the top of Crow's Nest ridge and to the edge of the escarpment and the Window Crevice.
Do not stay too long at the Window Crevice. Head north down the ridge to the top of the Tugela Falls for lunch. It's difficult to convey the fear of being so close to the edge with such a huge drop below. Try not to worry, as the rocks have not moved yet, so sit back and admire the view. In the distance are of the dams and rolling grasslands of KwaZulu-Natal. The source of the Tugela and Orange Rivers lies behind on the Mont-Aux-Sources.
The term Mont-Aux-Sources refers to the hills lying behind the Amphitheatre wall. Its actual peak (3282 m) seems insignificant as it lies some 3 km back against the Maluti Mountains. This area marks the watershed between Lesotho and South Africa, east and west coast. In total five rivers have their sources here. They are the Tugela, which plunges over the Amphitheatre wall; the Bilanjill, which flows into the Tugela just below the escarpment; the Khubedu, which joins the Orange River some 60 km south; the Khubela, joining the Khubedu some 11 km from its source, and the Elands River which flows into the Free State.
After lunch the walk back to the car park should be started by 3:00 pm. One has the choice of descending either by the chain ladders or the Gully between Beacon Buttress and the Sentinel. The Gully is steep and full of small loose rocks, and should not be attempted in wet conditions. The path leads to the Contour Path, and from there back to the car park and The Cavern.

Before you Go!

Hiking in this area demands some preparation. Always wear sound shoes or boots. Be aware that this area is subject to rapid changes of weather in all seasons. Always take waterproof clothing and something warm even if you are roasting in the car park below. It has been known to hail and snow in summer at the high altitude. At this height pay heed to the fact that exercise is more tiring – the air is much thinner – and that one dehydrates much quicker.

Park Fees and Charges

There is a small toll road fee and the park entrance fee per person.

 

WALKS AND HIKES STARTING AT ROYAL NATAL NATIONAL PARK
CASCADES AND McKINLAY'S POOL

GRADE: S (Or E if taking the round route).
TIME: 2 hours. (Or 3 hours round route).
DISTANCE: 5 km return. (8 km round trip).
TERRAIN: Easy path. (Undulating with a few steep parts on the round trip).

Take the campsite road from the casual car park (only campsite residents may take their car beyond this point). Walk along the road past the campsite. This joins the path to the Queen's causeway and the Cascades. The arch over the river was built in 1947 for the visit by King George VI and his family. From there a good path leads to McKinlay's Pool where the Gudu stream meets the Mahai. To make a round trip, although the going is very steep, take the path from the boulders near McKinlay's Pool up towards Dooley. It joins the Tiger Falls-Gudu Bush path. Return via Tiger Falls or Gudu Bush.

FAIRY GLEN

GRADE: S
TIME: 1 hour. (Or 2 hours round route).
DISTANCE: 2 km. (Or 4 km round route).
TERRAIN: Undulating path.

Take the tar road towards the entrance gate from the casual car park, crossing the bridge. Then take the path leading left through the bush to the Broome Hill stream. Cross and re-cross this, then follow up to the waterfall. The glen, well named, is a delightful picnic spot on a hot day.
Return the same way, or to make a round trip continue along the bridle path. Turn left back to the hotel at the first crossroads. Alternatively go left just beyond the crossroads along a path that leads to the main campsite.

OTTO'S WALK

GRADE: S
TIME: 1 hour.
DISTANCE: 3 km.
TERRAIN: Self-guided path.

The starting point is the far side of the visitor centre car park. The walk is sign-posted all the way. A booklet providing information on the walk is available from the visitor centre. Many trees are identified. Return the same way or take the main road.

SUNDAY FALLS

GRADE: E
TIME: 1½ hours.
DISTANCE: 4 km return.
TERRAIN: Undulating path.

Cross the Mahai below the casual car park. Follow the path up and across the sign-posted intersection, and so on to the path towards Surprise Ridge. At the turning leading down to the falls is a signpost. Cross above the falls and a track will be found leading down to the foot of the falls. Return the same way.

SIGUBUDU VALLEY BUSHMAN PAINTINGS

GRADE: S
TIME: 2 hours (Or 1 hour if driving part way).
DISTANCE: 6 km return.
TERRAIN: Undulating path.

Walk (or drive, there is room to park at the start of the walk proper) from the visitor centre back towards the entrance gate. Immediately after crossing the second bridge park your car and meet an authorised guide. Unaccompanied visits are no longer permitted because of continued damage to the paintings. They are now quite faint and easily missed without the guide. Turn up a sign-posted path to the left. This leads directly to the paintings. The guide will interpret them.

SIGUBUDU RIDGE

GRADE: E
TIME: 2½ hours.
DISTANCE: 6 km.
TERRAIN: Undulating with a few short steepish parts.

Walk from the visitor centre back towards the entrance gate. Immediately after crossing the second bridge turn up a path to the left. After 1 km or so a path strikes out to the right. It leads to the plateau above the Bushman paintings. Walk up this plateau, finding your own way. A path will be found that climbs up the centre of the ridge between the Sigubudu and Forgotten Valleys. Stay on this path through the proteas until reaching a path that traverses the head of these valleys. Turn left to return via the upper Sigubudu Valley and Sunday Falls to the visitor centre, or right to reach Rugged Glen or the Camel's Hump.

FOREST WALK

GRADE: E
TIME: 1½ hours.
DISTANCE: 4 km.
TERRAIN: Undulating path.

The starting point is the visitor's car park at Rugged Glen. Take the path up the valley, turning right along a path leading through several attractive forest patches to the Mont-aux-Sources Hotel. From here follow the boundary fence back to the road and the car park.

TIGER FALLS

GRADE: E
TIME: 2½ hours.
DISTANCE: 7 km round trip.
TERRAIN: Undulating path.

Take the route towards The Cascades, but take a left turn the road past the Mahai campground. The falls are reached at the first large stream and forest patch below Dooley. Return via Goodoo Bush by continuing along the path and across the Mahai, turning right when the bush is reached and so through the forest, and down to the starting point.
Alternatively, for residents of Thendele camp there is an easy walk of 30 minutes along the path below Dooley.

THENDELE CAMP

GRADE: E
TIME: 3 hours round trip.
DISTANCE: 10 km.
TERRAIN: Undulating path.

There is a road to the camp, but only residents may drive beyond the sign-posted Gorge parking area. Follow the paved road, either from the visitor centre or the Gorge car park to the hutted camp at the back of Dooley. Here is a magnificent view of the Amphitheatre, Policeman's Helmet and Vemvaan Valley in the foreground. Proceed on the circular route by taking the path that starts in Thendele below the lodge. It passes below the camp extension to the eastern end of a forest patch. >From here it meets the Tiger Falls path, and so back to the visitor centre.

DOOLEY WATERS AND MAHAI VALLEY

GRADE: C
TIME: 6 hours.
DISTANCE: 14 km return.
TERRAIN: Undulating path with steep sections.

Proceed to the upper end of Goodoo Bush via Tiger Falls. Continue up the valley on the main bridle path overlooking the Mahai stream for about 2.5 km. Cross the Mahai stream – a very attractive picnic spot – and continue up the north-facing slope until a path junction is reached. Turn left up the Dooley Waters path. This is a cul-de-sac.

MAHAI FALLS AND BASUTO GATE

GRADE: C+
TIME: 6½ hours return. (Or 8 hours round trip).
DISTANCE: 22 km return. (Or 24 km round trip).
TERRAIN: Undulating path with steep sections.

Proceed to the Dooley Waters-Basuto Gate junction. Turn right to continue up the Mahai valley to the Mahai Falls. This is a popular picnic spot with an inspiring view down the valley. From here follow the Basuto Gate path. At the gate it is a short walk over the ridge (the boundary with Qwa Qwa) where one gets magnificent views of the Malutis, often snow-clad during winter. The word "mahai" is Sesuto for "rocky krantz".
Return the same way, or from Basuto Gate continue along the path on the near side of the fence for about 3 km, crossing the source of the Goodoo stream on the way. Then continue to The Crack, or to the top of Goodoo Falls, and then back via The Mudslide.

THE CRACK AND THE MUDSLIDE

GRADE: C+
TIME: 5½ hours.
DISTANCE: 11 km.
TERRAIN: Undulating path with steep and slippery sections and chain ladders, and is not suitable for small children or those with a fear of heights.

From Goodoo Bush continue up the valley for another 1.2 km, where a path will be seen leading towards The Crack. The climb is very steep, but a short chain ladder helps one over the most difficult section. On reaching the top, bear right onto the high ground overlooking the Mahai valley. Make straight for the top of Goodoo Falls, where an easy crossing of the stream can be made 50 metres upstream. This is a good swimming and picnic spot. Directions are hardly needed for scaling Plowman's Kop, from which there is a magnificent view. Return down The Mudslide. This starts beyond the far corner of Plowman's Kop. The descent is steep and loose, and slippery after rain. Use the short chain ladder. At the foot of the cleft follow the main path round to the right until it joins the path leading back to the visitor centre.

BROOME HILL

GRADE: C+
TIME: 8 hours.
DISTANCE: 15 km.
TERRAIN: Undulating path with steep and slippery sections and chain ladders, and is not suitable for small children or those with a fear of heights.

Proceed via Goodoo Bush and The Crack to the top of Goodoo Falls. Continue up the slope, keeping the top of the sandstone cliffs on your right. Upon reaching the Basuto Gate turn right. The summit of Broome Hill can be reached on just over an hour from Goodoo Falls. There are wonderful views in all directions. Return via The Mudslide or Basuto Gate.

CASTLE ROCKS

GRADE: D+
TIME: 4½ hours
DISTANCE: 13 km.
TERRAIN: Undulating path with steep sections and some scrambling.

Cross the Mahai below the casual car park. Follow the path up and across the sign-posted intersection. Just beyond it is a signpost pointing left up Broome Hill valley. Climb steadily until reaching the Grotto forest. Just before that turn right by a path leading down and across the stream, up the opposite side, along to the left, and into trees below the krantz. Continue along "King Solomon's Mines" for 50 m; a signpost points to a hole in the krantz which leads through the rock face. Then up the steep grassy slope to the top. The view overlooking the "Big Blind Valley" is outstanding.

TUGELA GORGE TRAIL AND TUGELA FALLS

GRADE: D
GRADE: C+ if you continue past the Chain Ladder for better views and more excitement.
TIME: 5 hours return.
DISTANCE: 14 km return.
TERRAIN: The path is easy to follow and climbs gradually. The only part that may present difficulties is the last two kilometres in the Gorge itself, which involves boulder hopping and some wading in fast knee-deep water.

The Tugela Gorge hike is one of the finest one-day hikes in South Africa. A guide with packed lunches provided by The Cavern enables you to make a full day of this trip. This walk is a must-do in the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg. As well as proper walking shoes it may be useful to take along a lighter pair of shoes or sandals to walk through the river to get to the Gorge. In summer make sure you take a costume for a lovely swim in the rock pools. Drink plenty of liquids – the river water is safe – and take along a hat.

The hike takes place within the Royal Natal National Park. This has an interesting history dating back many years. In 1836 while exploring Basutoland, two French missionaries, Arbrousset and Daumas, first discovered Mont-Aux-Sources, literally the mountain of sources (of the rivers). In 1908 the idea of establishing a National Park in this area was conceived, and the territory was explored by Senator Frank Churchill, General Wylie, Colonel Dick and Mr W. O. Coventry. Recommendations were put forward, but it was not until 1916 that the Secretary of Lands authorised the reservation of five farms and certain Crown Lands, totalling approximately 8160 acres, and entrusted it to the Executive Committee of the Natal Province.

On the 16 September 1916 the National Park came into being. An advisory committee was appointed to control the park. Shortly afterwards the Natal Provincial Administration purchased the farm "Goodoo", upon which a hostel had already been opened in 1913, and incorporated a small portion of the Upper Tugela Native Trust Land, thus swelling the National Park to its present 20 000 acres. The Advisory Committee was abolished in January 1942, and the park was administered by the Provincial Council until the formation of the Natal Parks, Game and Fish Preservation Board on the 22 December 1947.

Mr F. O. Williams held the first hostel lease rights on the farm Goodoo that he obtained from Mr W. O. Coventry, the original owner. Mr Coventry became lessee of the whole Park in 1919, and took over the post of Park Superintendent in August 1924 at the grand salary of £5 per month. In 1926 he was succeeded by Otto and Walter Zunkel, who each added their share of buildings and improvements. Mr Alan Short was the next Superintendent, and was in charge when the Royal Family visited the park in May 1947, as a result of which its name changed to "Royal Natal National Park".

This walk begins in the Tugela car park, and is a wonderful experience of "climbing" into the mountains. Follow the signs to "The Gorge". After 15 minutes you will come to a bridge over the tributary from Devil's Hoek. Cross the bridge and follow the path to the left. Not long after crossing the intersecting stream from Devil's Hoek, look out for Policeman's Helmet on the high ground to the right overlooking Vermaan Valley. Initially the trail is almost flat, allowing you to admire the magnificent scenery to the full. The path winds along, above and parallel to the Tugela River.
The scenery is spectacular, and in spring and summer the valley is a carpet of indigenous flora. The path meanders in and out of lush forests cascading down the hills into the river valley below. Views of the Amphitheatre wall get increasingly more magnificent as you approach the Gorge – the wall rises over 1800 m from the valley floor. Before the path begins to steepen it is still possible to leave the path to get to the river for water, should you think of stopping for a picnic lunch here.

The path disappears just before the Gorge proper. The last kilometre through the Gorge entails three boulder crossings of the river – simple enough unless in flood, and takes about an hour. If at all possible it is well worth continuing, but anyone nervous about their knees might do well to stop here. With a little bit of effort the most picturesque scenery in the park is to seen at the far end, along with a welcome cup of tea from The Cavern guide.
At this point there are a number of things to look for; the Devil's Tooth, the tunnel ahead and the chain ladder. Pause for a swim in the crystal clear white sandstone rock pools before attempting the chain ladder.
At the Tunnel (really a ends here, but the Tunnel can be bypassed by a scramble up a chain ladder deep cleft) the river flows through an impassable rock formation. Some local information suggests that there is a way through here, but don't attempt it. The mapped trail to the right, leading into the Amphitheatre. A boulder hop further up the Tugela for about half a kilometre will reward you with a complete change of scenery at every step.
You may see or hear baboons barking on the high rocks. Three beautiful and locally endemic birds often perch on the rocks too: the ground woodpecker, Cape rock-thrush and buff-streaked chat. On the proteas look for the greater and southern double-collared sunbirds, and even Gurney's sugarbird.
Keep an eye out for thunderstorms that quickly brew above the Amphitheatre wall, but above all else remember to enjoy yourself in this special place. The return down trip to the car park is faster than the up trip so savour the moments you treasure the most.

Before you Go!

Check the weather forecast before setting off. Heavy rain causes very dangerous flash floods. Sunblock is especially important on this hike, the terrain seems to focus the sun's rays on hikers. There is no mountain rescue emergency procedure here, and no recognition of distress signals. So if hiking without a guide it is essential that you advise hotel staff of your route and expected time of return. Then stick to these.

 

DEVIL'S HOEK VALLEY

GRADE: E
TIME: 4½ hours.
DISTANCE: 15 km return.
TERRAIN: Undulating path.

The Gorge car park is the starting point. Initially follow the path to The Gorge. After about 30 minutes the path emerges from a forest, and there is a signpost to Devil's Hoek Valley. A further 10 minutes walk will bring you to, on the right, a large rock with some Bushman paintings. Sadly these have been vandalised in recent years by scratches and graffiti. Damaging rock paintings carries a fine of R500 000, or five years jail, or both.
Continue through a large patch of forest, uphill across an open section, and into another forest. The path ends here. The near-legendary leopard has been encountered here. This valley is said to have a forbidding air, and the local people never venture there. Return the same way. It is possible – hard going – to climb up from beyond the second forest to The Dome, or on the other side to Dooley.
From Thendele camp there is a more direct route to Devil's Hoek Valley; 30 minutes each way.

VEMVAAN VALLEY

GRADE: C
TIME: 5 hours.
DISTANCE: 17 km.
TERRAIN: Undulating path, with steep scrambles if tackling the Policeman's Helmet.

The Gorge car park is the starting point. Initially follow the path to The Gorge. Take the sign-posted path towards Devil's Hoek Valley. After a further 1.6 km a path branches to the left, leading across a stream just below a forest and into Vemvaan Valley. After crossing a second stream the path, now less clear, leads to the head of the valley and open ground beyond.
This is a good chance to scramble up to the Policeman's Helmet. This is a remarkable example of a hard stratum capping an undercut softer stratum. Eventually it will fall, and the sandstone slab will roll down the valley slope as so many other sandstone boulders have done before. Close by is the very rare, and only recently discovered Protea nubigena. This may well be the only population in the world, making it probably the rarest of all proteas.
Return the same way. >From Thendele camp there is a more direct route to Vemvaan Valley; one hour each way.

THE LION

GRADE: C
TIME: 3 hours.
DISTANCE: 6 km return.
TERRAIN: Undulating with steep sections.

This walk is outside the RNNP and not signposted. The starting point is The Gorge car park. Cross the Tugela River and join the path going round to the right of the ridge. This path zigzags through the proteas until reaching an outpost. Continue up the fence line until reaching the sandstone cliffs. Cross the fence and you will note a large cave. To the left of the cave is a steep grassy gully that brings you onto the ridge. There are remarkable views of the Amphitheatre, Tugela Falls and Sentinel. From here there is a steady climb upwards to the foot of the Eastern Buttress. Further progress is not recommended. Return the same way.

THE GAP

GRADE: C+
TIME: 8 hours.
DISTANCE: 25 km.
TERRAIN: Undulating with steep sections and scrambles. Not for the faint-hearted, and only to be undertaken with an experienced guide.

Take the main bridle path towards Goodoo Bush, and from there to the head of the Mahai Valley. Then take the short cut to Mahai Falls. From here the path leads up to The Nek on the border of The Free State. The path now follows the contour westwards to The Gap. Continue to The Dome, easily climbed from here.
To return take the not-too-obvious path down below The Gap. This winds around The Dome and then continues along The Ridge. The break in the krantz leading down into Devil's Hoek Valley is not too easily found, and care is needed in descending. It is near the extremity of a long ridge. Follow the valley down to the Tugela car park, and thence home.

 

SAFETY WHILST TREKKING

The Royal Natal National Park is recognised as a World Heritage Site of cultural and natural significance. The mountains offer superb hiking and climbing, but also have many dangers. Here are some guidelines for your safe and responsible enjoyment of these magnificent mountains.

 

REGISTERS

OVERNIGHT HIKES IN THE NATIONAL PARK: always take the time to complete the Mountain Rescue Register correctly and in detail. It is often the only information the rescue team has to refer to if you have an accident or get lost. Mountain Rescue Registers are kept at all entry points to the National Park.
DAY WALKS: fill in the Day Walk Register where available, even if you plan only a short walk, and especially if you plan to go above the contour path. Failing to complete the register wastes valuable time in initiating a rescue operation.

 

REMEMBER TO:

1. Avoid an unnecessary search by recording your return in the register at your point of exit or by phoning the Wildlife Office where you started your hike.
2. Tell a close friend or family member when you expect to be back and include their contact details in the Register.

 

PLANNING

Plan your route, describe this accurately in the Register and stick to your plan! If you intend to use caves for over-nighting, these must be booked with the office before you depart on your hike. Camping is not allowed in any caves with Rock Art so enquire about this when planning your route.

Never hike alone! The recommended minimum group size of 4 persons is especially important if you intend to hike up the escarpment, with a maximum of 12 people per group in the wilderness zone.

Please note there is considerably less daylight in winter than summer. A bright summer morning can end in a severe summer storm with freezing conditions in the afternoon, so good quality equipment is essential. Over the years, snow has been recorded during every month along these mountains so be prepared for sudden weather changes.

For unexpected eventualities, always carry a tent suitable for mountain conditions, even if you have planned to stay in a cave. Always carry extra food when hiking. A day walk may become an overnight hike if an emergency should arise.
When hiking on top of the escarpment, carry at least two days extra supplies. An accurate map is vital and knowing how to use it is essential, as paths in the wilderness are not marked. Detailed maps are available at Wildlife curio shops in the area. Should you decide to use a GPS for navigation, ensure that it is set to the same datum to which your map is aligned and take spare batteries. Remember to plan for the slowest hiker in the group and consider that children may become tired at the furthest point of your walk!

 

EMERGENCY SITUATIONS

WEATHER

Extreme weather conditions combined with exhaustion can lead to dehydration, hypothermia (from extreme cold) and possibly death. Symptoms of hypothermia include uncontrolled shivering, poor muscle control and a careless manner. Try to reach shelter before it rains as a combination of wet and cold can be fatal. Put on dry clothes, take warm drinks (no alcohol) and obtain warmth by body contact with another person. Windproof clothing, good socks, gloves and a good tent can prevent a problem from arising.
Protect yourself adequately not only from extreme cold, but also from the sun. At these high altitudes, a very painful problem can arise in a short time of exposure. It may become unbearable to carry a backpack when sunburnt. Use sunblock cream often so that you don`t spoil your hike. Drink plenty of water to avoid the dehydration that often arises with the physical exertion required for hiking in the mountains. The mountain streams on the escarpment generally have water safe to drink but water purification tablets may be used if in doubt. Always keep together and travel only as fast as the slowest person in your group.
In snow or lightning storms, move off the escarpment as soon as possible. Do not shelter from lightning directly under trees or large rocks. If you become lost, always stay together as a group and consider your options as a group. In poor visibility stay where you are, rather than try and find your way in the dark, snow or mist. Report your situation by cell-phone earlier rather than later, guidance may be easily at hand and a rescue team may be put on standby before there is a real emergency. Always know where you are on the map! Rescue operations are seriously complicated when hikers have strayed from the recognised paths.

FIRE

If you see a fire approaching you, ACT IMMEDIATELY. Either seek out fire refuges - rivers, forests or valley floors - OR light the grass at 90° to the wind direction and then stand in the burnt area. FIRE BURNS VERY FAST UP A SLOPE. If you are on a flat area or at the top of a ridge, run through the fire at 90° to the flames. Cover yourself with a jacket, hold your breath or breathe through your clothing and run.

FLOODING AND HEAVY RAIN

Mountain rivers and even flooded streams can be very dangerous to cross as the water is very fast flowing; if in doubt, do not cross. Do not camp next to a river or stream as flash flooding may catch you unaware.

SNAKES

There are three types of dangerous snakes in the area, the puff adder, berg adder and rinkhals. The rinkhals is capable of spitting and in cases of poison in the eyes, rinse with water, milk or urine. If you have a snake bite victim, keep them calm and reduce movement to a minimum; exercise quickens the spread of the venom. Seek medical assistance as soon as possible. Do NOT apply a tourniquet. Wrap the limb firmly, starting at the top in order to slow (but not stop!) the blood circulation.

RIGHT TO RISK

The "Right to Risk" is yours to go where you like, but remember that a rescue team may have to risk their lives to save yours, so while we encourage you to enjoy this World Heritage Site, please act responsibly!

Report all security-related incidents, no matter how small, to the Conservation Manager as they are all important to us. After your hike report to the Conservation Manager, or record on the reverse of the Mountain Rescue Register form, any observations or incidents which made your experience a rewarding one! Any problems should also be reported, so that the management team can address these as soon as they have been brought to our attention.

 

HIKING CHECK LIST : ESSENTIAL EQUIPMENT

  • Mountain tent, sleeping bag and hiking mattress, backpack, good comfortable hiking boots, rain- and wind-proof jacket & longs, spare warm clothing, water bottle and collapsible 5-litre water container
  • First aid kit including plasters, headache tablets and two crepe bandages, emergency safety blanket (foil), large plastic bags to line and waterproof your rucksack, litter bag, sufficient food plus extra food
  • Accurate map, torch with spare batteries, pencil and paper, whistle and string, penknife, sun hat and sunscreen lotion, portable stove and fuel, dry matches or lighter, trowel and toilet paper
  • Medical aid card, medic alert bracelet, personal medication, passport, cell-phone with spare battery or battery booster in sealed plastic bag, telephone numbers for the park office in the area where you are hiking
  • Telephone numbers for your accommodation before and after your hike


UPON YOUR ARRIVAL

Obtain weather forecast, pay entrance fee and keep receipt safe, fill in the Mountain Rescue Register or Day Walk Register, check security situation, check equipment

 

WHEN LEAVING

Sign out in the Mountain Rescue Register or Day Walk Register, inform the officials at your place of entry (you may have exited at a different point), deposit litter in a bin at your point of exit
Activites - Drakensberg Hiking and walking Trails
Activites - Drakensberg Hiking and walking Trails